Off-Broadway, Nunsense


Last October, at an uncle’s birthday party, I happen to talk to a former Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa who I think had once lived next door to my grandmother. I happen to mention to her the game that my first-grader teacher had us play – a game that I only had recently recalled which had a lot more unstated spiritual nature. Maybe once a week, a first-grader would come to the front of the room and participate in the “Who is it?” game.

It was in the days Mark Goodson and Bill Todman Productions. With “Beat the Clock.” “To Tell the Truth.” “I’ve Got a Secret.” The child would be blind-folded and got to ask only what seemed to be designated, ritual-like questions.

“Who is it?’
“It is I.’

And the blind-folded first grader would have to somehow resolve the identity of the questioner.

Last night I read the website of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, wondering whatever happened to my sixth grade teacher. In reading other obits, I was surprised how familiar I was with the schools that these Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa had taught at. Churches in the Midwest where I had worshipped, long after first grade.

Like God, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa had been everywhere: at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, St. Celia’s in Omaha, St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee, Queen of Peace in Madison, or at St. Mary in Evanston.

A child’s first perspective on issues of power, in the outside world – the world outside of parents, where parents rules — and the world seemed pretty good. Except when you had peas served with the chicken.

I saw the obit last night of my first grade teacher, Sister Pancratius Ritacca, OP, who was a member of the order of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. That is what the OP meant. To a six-year old, she seemed really old at the time she taught me. Hidden, at the time, not so unlike a modern Muslim women is, behind a veil. Including her neck.

There were fifty first-graders in that class, in the days a few years before Vatican II, when sisters were seen as a part of a work force for ecclesial projects. Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa did not get to complain about class size when, after all, this was the reason they had signed on, wearing their wimples, to teach.

Yes, once upon a time Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa had been everywhere. Maybe because of the affect of all those Mark Goodson and Bill Todman Productions, the good sisters were no longer at these Midwest parish schools. There had never really been an investigation as to why, until 2008. (And yesterday, I read where it sounds as if that investigation was cancelled. By Brazilian Archbishop João Bráz de Aviz, who was appointed in January as the new prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life . Good riddance to the last guy!)

If you are attending in its 25th year, the off-Broadway Production of Nunsense, you might be unaware of the profound deep part of a woman who dedicates herself to teach, for no compensation. By the costumes used, no one was messing with the black and white world of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. Someone had made light of all the nonsense that was imposed by the Sisters of St. Joseph or the Sisters of St. Francis. And the former nuns I knew, just loved it. The ones who had once taught in schools when tuition charged was $35 per year. And year after year there were new kids to teach. Kids who were a lot cuter in first grade than they had been in the eighth grade. Kids who had absorbed all of this knowledge and set off into the world.

There was no investigation as to why the valuation of Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa had fallen to a disregard, in the modern world until the one undertaken in 2008 by the powers that be in Rome. The people in the pews seemed to understand what had happened as a nation became more urban, as ethnic enclaves in the cities where most Catholics over fifty had grown up had been broken up by the idea of living outside the urban core. And because after Vatican II, when the veils came off, these women religious now are striving to work collaboratively with the ordained leadership of the church,” yet still as “a prophetic life form in the church.” Sr. Kathleen Popko, president of the Sisters of Providence, said that Women Religious “must not be co-opted for institutional purposes, enforcing its teachings and policies,” but rather “Insisting that they are not to be seen as a “work force for ecclesial projects.”

Not some kind of secret agent of the church, Sister Pancratius Ritacca had one day minstered to a frightened first grader who had been washing the chalk board and emptying a pail of water in the Men’s room, when another kid about fourteen had threatened, for some unknown reason, to kill him. Sister Pancratius Ritacca who knew there was evil in the world ran faster than Sally Fields, who later would be known as the Flying Nun, to catch the culprit.

“Who is it?”
“It is I.’

Sister Pancratius Ritacca, OP, professed vows in 1939, and in doing so gave up in a way her Italian heritage to become a member of a universal church which ministered, in elementary education, teaching at St. Thomas Aquinas in Milwaukee, at St. Cajetan in Chicago, at Visitation in Kewanee, IL, at Incarnation in Minneapolis, at St. Patrick in Ottawa, IL, at St. Joseph in Baraboo, WI, at St. Mary in Evanston, and at St. Thomas Aquinas, in Kenosha.

It is said that Sr. Pancratius enjoyed telling jokes and riddles. Riddles about the God who once upon a time described Himself as I Am Who Am.

In Kenosha, Sr. Pancratius led Bible studies, ministered in family care, did home visits, and taught religious education. I recall on Good Friday in 1959, she suggested that all fifty first-grader stay home, inside between the hours of noon and three. I looked in horror when she saw me at a three o’clock, and witnessed that I had not stayed in…..as I marched forward to kiss the holy cross.

In the chat nine months ago with the former Dominican sister of Sinsinawa who after telling me that Sr. Pancratius had died, I said it was not possible. My Sister Pancratius would have to be 130 years old. Or older. And I described the prophetic life form game:

Then I looked last night and found her picture, confirming that she had died. On February 4, 2010. The woman who had taught me how to read. And for the first time I saw her hair. And her neck. And those eyes. The Italian ones in so much rage that someone had threatened to kill me. And I thought again of that game. And the riddle about the God who once upon a time described Himself as I Am Who Am.

“Who is it?”
“It is I.’


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